Living well on Post-Fact Earth
Welcome to our scorched, ludicrous post-fact planet. Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump’s rate of lie generation is absolutely stunning: 61% of fact-checked remarks are lies, compared to 12 for Hillary Clinton. He barred several major media organisations from attending his rallies.
Carefully crafted deceptions are a hazy memory for those covering US politics – Donald Trump emits falsehoods from a fully-automatic gas-powered lie-machine-gun, and he’s now a real contender in the race. At the time of writing (it’s legitimately hard to keep up), Trump pretended that the NFL had complained to him about candidate debate scheduling conflicts. This was not a lie delivered with purpose and intent – this is the pathology of crumbling lunatic who sense no consequence for misleading American voters.
It’s happening everywhere. A big factor in Britain’s decision to leave the EU was a line taken by the ‘Vote Leave’ Campaign, promising that the entirety of an (inaccurate) amount of money sent to the EU would be granted to the NHS. The since-resigned leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage (who disowned the Leave Campaign) stated hours after the result was finalised that this wasn’t the case. The CEO the Leave Campaign, Matthew Elliott, has previously called for the NHS to be privatised – his pinned Tweet stayed up on his feed for days after the vote:
Almost every single key figure in the Brexit campaign insincerely promised they had the best interests of the NHS at heart, despite their collective desire for its abolition. It didn’t matter. Britain voted to leave. Experts were dismissed, and facts ceased to exist. The emotion of discontent disables the detection of dishonesty. As Rafael Behr wrote in The Guardian:
“The result reflected a debasement of Britain’s political culture: the traducing, with media complicity, of rational discourse by a leave campaign that targeted the very idea of factual argument”
Arguments that are made based on evidence, and channelled through the funnel of expertise, are perceived as agents of authority and elite dominance, rather than bits of information that have been checked more thoroughly than feelings or anecdotes. This sentiment, combined with the ideas that everything is terrible, experts are corrupt and that, somehow, becoming racist will fix economic problems, is quite potent.
Earlier this year, I found an old interview between Senator-Elect Pauline Hanson and 60-minutes reporter Tracey Curro. Hanson’s famous claim, that Australia is being ‘swamped by Asians’, was challenged by Curro:
“Let’s look at some actual numbers, then. There are 866,224 Asian born Australians. Out of a population of over 18 million. Now, is that in danger of ‘being swamped'”?
“I don’t believe those figures”
“Well, these are from the Department of Immigration”
“That’s their….as far as I’m concerned, they’re book figures. I don’t believe those figures”
It’s an amazing moment. Hanson seems genuinely annoyed, and she sternly denies the numbers. It happened again on SBS documentary, Please Explain – Hanson hears statistics shown an increase in hate crimes targeting Asians after her maiden speech – to which she simply shakes her head and say ‘no, I don’t accept that’.
It also happened recently on the ABC’s Q&A program:
TONY JONES: Pauline, can I just interrupt you? I mean, can you make such a blanket statement “Islam doesn’t believe in democracy” when north of Australia is the biggest democracy in our region and it’s Islamic?
PAULINE HANSON: No, look, I don’t – I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that because you’ve got a lot of countries around the world, they have a political ideology, that want to control the people. Now, I want to see a separation of the two.
TONY JONES: You don’t think that’s true …
PAULINE HANSON: This is what I’m saying.
TONY JONES: You don’t think that’s true of Indonesia though, do you?
PAULINE HANSON: I think they control the people and their beliefs, I really do, and the people controlled by it.
Q&A faced some criticism last year for not challenging falsehoods offered by the commentators on the show. In one particularly memorable incident, Alan Jones claimed on the show that the price of wind power was several orders of magnitude higher than it actually is:
This isn’t a rare occurrence, but it feels that this year has seen a shift. Making stuff up was something that had to be done in secret, and masked using distraction and spin, but 2016 is the year of outright denial. Adhering to reality (which is generally the best way of getting stuff done) is an act that has become politically charged. It’s being slowly discovered that deception doesn’t have to be a winding, elegant obfuscation. This isn’t good. The fast-food version of lying can be dished out to a population in enormous quantities, and it’s going to arrest the ability of any society to move forward.
There’s a saying that went around recently that I find particularly relevant, when it comes to the resurgence of high-frequency falsehoods in the Western world – Alberto Brandolini’s Universal Law of Bullshit:
I chucked heartily when I first saw it. But now, populist politicians like Donald Trump use falsehood presented as fact, as a way of catalysing already-strong emotions. His recent speech at the Republic National Convention (“These are the facts” was his preamble) was absolutely stuffed full of lies, and in totality, his speech was a blood-curdling appeal to racism, anti-immigration sentiment and fear.
Some claim that Trump’s audience doesn’t care about facts, but that contradicts Trump’s efforts to reassure his audience that these are indeed ‘the facts’. His emotional, angry audience still hates liars – it’s jut that their capacity for detecting lies is badly degraded by the terrifying blood-lust and cruelty that seems to be on open display at his rallies.
Brandolini’s law suggests that the falsehoods propping up this new form of sinister populism cannot be undone without an enormous expenditure of human energy. I don’t think this is the case.
I think the vital variable in living well on post-fact Earth is time – Brandolini’s law can be circumvented, simply through experience and speed. Writing up a tweet debunking an erroneous claim directly after it’s spoken is an order of magnitude more effective than waiting a day – the ‘amount of energy’ needed to refute bullshit increases exponentially as you move further in the future from the creation of that bullshit. Consider CNN debunking a Trump claim on-screen, in real-time, contained within the graphic:
I think it’s going to be the only way to maintain the sanctity of accuracy and truth in a world that is increasingly dominated by people who regularly make stuff up, and are completely desensitised to the revelation that they’re wrong. Sure, there’s a complex array of factors that’s caused this to come about – as Patrick Stokes writes at The Conversation,
“Expertise denial has become a deeply corrosive feature of modern political society. It needs to be called out wherever it appears. But we also need to think about how we reduce people’s disconnection from the sources of epistemic authority. That is a far more wickedly difficult problem”
Stokes is right – there’s a systemic and underlying cause for this shift, but in the short term, we’re being drowned in lies and we need to push back with some rapid-fire, near-instantaneous, short, sharp and powerful true facts.
Sorry, reporters and journalists actually having to do their jobs? I would hold my breath waiting, but I almost died last time.
I push back with facts, because I feel personally compelled to do so. But pushing back with facts is generally useless. What we need is a strategy that makes angry people feel like they’re part of the conversation. Then they might stop shouting long enough to join the conversations. (BTW, by ‘angry people’ I don’t mean ‘angry xenophobes’ etc — for whom I think there is little hope — I mean ‘angry laid-off manufacturing workers’ etc.)